Timing is Everything

By Daniel Isanov 07/07/14

How a beeper watch and an egg timer app helped me clean up and start to grow up.


I’m not sure what my problem is — ADHD, alcoholism, maybe just old-fashioned laziness — but productivity has always been difficult for me. I was looking for a better word, but I think that’s the word. I’ve always had a hard time creating product. I’m very good at creating bullshit, and, being that I’m a writer, sometimes my bullshit becomes product. Still, it’s important for me to mind the difference. Product is something that other people can use. Bullshit is something that other people might be able to use, but mostly not.

I never did well in school unless it was by accident. Every once in a while, I’d get passionate about something — the Constitution, maybe — and they would give me an award and I would be shocked. But mostly I couldn’t find a way to translate my desire to produce good work into the reality of good work. I barely graduated from high school. I did okay in college mostly because college is a good environment for bullshit.  

And then I got sober. So many of my paragraphs begin that way. Sobriety, among other things, convinced me that I knew nothing. In the aftermath of quitting drinking, I constructed a new life. I tried to take nothing for granted. If someone I trusted couldn’t explain to me, explicitly, how to do something I wanted to do, I looked for a book or a blog that could tell me. I found new ways. I had humility like nausea. It was always there to remind me that I didn’t know shit. Because I really didn’t know shit.

One thing I had to ruthlessly admit was that I had no attention span whatsoever. I’m not even sure, come to think of it, what those words mean. I’m pretty sure they describe what’s only possible on a cocaine binge. Sometimes, in the middle of my second double espresso, I can sense “attention span” like a dark horse on the horizon, but it’s gone as soon as I move toward it, like a mirage. Mostly, when I’m left to my own devices, I think about Battlestar Galactica and pepperoni pizza. That’s my default. 

I tried Adderall. But Adderall, it turns out, is a drug. I’ve got nothing against drugs except for the biggest thing I have against drugs: they stop working after a while, and you need more. Once I noticed that about Adderall, I went back to espresso where I have stayed ever since.

So, how do you build a life, I wanted to know, from such flawed materials? From a mind that is mostly good for watching television and dreaming about carbs? The first idea that I was blessed to get rid of was the notion that there was a right way to do anything. My life had been filled, up to that point and beyond, with people who knew how to do things the right way, but never actually got anything done. The world is, in fact, filled with these kinds of people. I think they are called “experts,” but I also think they’re just called “people.” One of the mantras that I tried to live by, particularly when I was newly sober, was this: don’t go to the guy who is an expert on homebuilding — go to the guy who’s actually built a house.

And if you think that distinction is a simple one, well, maybe you’re not as thick-headed as I am. 

Still, to this day, one of the greatest tools I’ve discovered is time. And by that I probably don’t mean time in any conventional sense, but time as a useful abstraction. Time as in whatever the hell a watch measures. But, more importantly, time as a tool. Time as a lever, maybe. Time as a thing that doesn’t really exist at all, but when we pretend it exists it can be extremely useful to us.

For many years, let’s be honest, I prayed at the altar of time. But mostly they were awful, self-defeating prayers. I’ve always had one watch or another. And mostly they kept track of what I was not doing. It was an instrument of shame, a whip to beat myself with. When I was twenty-five, I was genuinely heartsick that I hadn’t yet directed Citizen Kane, as Orson Welles had done by that age. If it was 4:15 in the afternoon, I was acutely aware of how much work I had missed on that day. Time was never anything I could use to good purpose.

Since I’ve been sober, though, I’m less interested in clocks than I am in timers. The watch I favor now — a Timex 100 lap Flix, $40 at Target — has a really simple mechanism for containing time. I think of time as something that can be corralled for my own use. I try not to think of it as something apart from me, something wild and indifferent to my desires, because I have another name for that conception of time: I call that “watching TV.” I call that “surfing the net.” I call that “abject fear.”

In terms of “corralling time” or “containing time,” I’ve never found a better tool than a timer. In addition to the one on my Timex, I have one on my computer — a free software program from France called Minuteur. A simple egg timer is what it is. Now, I don’t know why I respond so well to this kind of time. I think my ADHD likes shiny toys. Maybe it’s all those standardized tests I took as a kid. But the fact is that I respond.

My beeper watch is magic. My egg timer is magic. When I push the button, time becomes space. The timer on my watch doesn’t give me anything finite, it gives me something infinite. It gives me a place to go, a place to inhabit, a region devoted to creativity and purpose.

Does that sound too weird? Maybe I should tell you that that I was a kid who transformed his life on the occasion of standardized tests. It was a racket, of course, but I was one of the few people that it actually worked out for. I walked into those tests a special ed student and I walked out a genius. I don’t think it was that they diagnosed my genius so much as they enabled it. When someone forced me to sit down and inhabit that space, wonderful things became possible. The grades I got in an everyday classroom remained as poor as ever. I never forgot the lesson, though. But it was only after I got sober that I started using it.

Here’s the thing: there is a profound difference between doing and not-doing. Not doing is often known as talking about doing, but it’s also worrying, planning, outlining, and preparing. Knowing the difference between these two states of being has made the biggest difference in my life. Doing is something like the elimination of everything that is not doing. The way that I explain it to myself in terms of my writing is this: “writing can be defined as the absence of everything that is not writing.” In other words, I create a space where writing can occur, and then writing occurs in that space. It’s not about doing the thing; it’s about eliminating all the obstacles to doing the thing. It’s about letting the thing happen.

What the timer does is create a space of possibility where doing can happen. Although writing is the primary place that this technique has changed my life, it also works for housecleaning, paying bills, and playing with infants. Time, for some reason, creates space. And space is everything. Space is the thing that you really want. Space is where you can actually live your life.

Maybe I’m just stating the obvious here, and the rest of the world has known these things forever. It wouldn’t be the first time. The beeper watch is just my way of getting from unreal to real, a journey which is of absolute vital importance to me and every addict that I know. One of the first distinctions I learned in AA was the profound difference between drinking and not drinking. They could have been explaining quantum theory for all the sense that made to me. If you don’t drink, you can’t get drunk? What can you possibly mean by that? And then one day I got it, and my life changed. There was also the first day I cleaned my bathtub. The first time I applied for a job. The first time I kissed someone…and they were actually in the same room with me at the time. I don’t think there’s a way to use a beeper watch on that one, but anything’s possible.

Daniel Isanov is a pseudonym for a novelist.

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